Anouk Oomen

Over the years, many articles have been written about the influence social media has on our lives. There has long been a debate about whether or not these developments have been positive. Recent controversial examples can be found regarding the American election, the Black Lives Matter movement and the spread of fake news. There is, however, a  different issue on the rise that I would like to discuss in this article: how social media is influencing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Let’s start this discussion with a worrying fact: social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 8 million people since 2019. There currently are about 31 million people who follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and about 17 million people who have subscribed to similar YouTube accounts. Now, this might not instantly ring an alarm bell if you remember that there are about 7.8 billion people on this earth. However, part of those people are children and elders who are unlikely to be very active on the Internet, and another part has little to no online access. On top of that, it is very likely that the people who do join anti-vaxx groups will influence their friends and family, thus raising the number of people who are affected by these beliefs. Public attitudes towards vaccination can be split into three categories: people who believe in vaccination, people who do not and people who are not sure what to believe. Although the anti-vaxx groups are smaller than the groups who do believe in vaccinations, they are a whole lot better at communicating and at convincing people of their beliefs. In a recent report, the CCDH warned that this growing movement could undermine the future of a corona vaccine. A survey in Britain found that one in six people were unlikely to get the vaccine, and a similar amount were still undecided. The research also showed that individuals who used social media as a primary source of information on the pandemic were more likely to be doubtful about the COVID-19 vaccine. The WHO has even called the spread of false information about the pandemic an ‘infodemic’.

Furthermore, there is a lot of money circulating on social media. The CCDH calculated that the anti-vaccine movement could realize about 1 billion US dollars in revenue from online platforms alone. There are also people who profit off the anti-vaxxers, using their platforms to advertise and sell their dubious products, which are – for example – said to prevent corona. If these social media platforms continue to exist and keep gaining followers, it is very likely that they will start making more money. They could use this money to advertise their beliefs further, which could lead to some seriously scary situations. Imagine TikTok-star Charli D’Amelio telling her almost 100 million followers not to get the COVID-19 vaccine because an anti-vaxx group paid her to say so.

This leads me to my last, and arguably most important point: the misinformation needs to be stopped, but what is the correct way to do so? Fake news has become a much bigger problem since the COVID pandemic. Because of that, in 2019, several social media firms pledged to combat the misinformation problem. False information is now labeled or deleted and oftentimes links to official news sources or government sited are included. However, is this enough? The CCDH seems to think the answer is no. In a recent report they reviewed how out of 912 social media posts containing misinformation about COVID-19, less than 45 were dealt with by social media companies. However, keep in mind that social media platforms have huge algorithms and it costs them massive amounts of time and money to even try and make certain posts disappear. They might appear to help because governments want them to, but it is not in their best interest. And this is where the CCDH and I stop agreeing. They advocate for de-platforming individuals and completely deleting misinformation, calling anti-vaxxers malign actors and citing studies on antiterrorism. This raises a very ethical question: is it okay for social media companies to delete anti-vaccine movements off their platforms? Does this conflict with the freedom of speech? Everyone is entitled to have their own opinions, but does that still apply when we are talking about people’s lives? Professor Viswanath from the Social and Behavioral Science Department at Harvard agrees: ‘Unless you have a situation where there is blatant misinformation that is directly causing harm, you have to ask ‘where do you draw the line?’ By deleting the means that anti-vaxxers have, do you also delete their stage? Or will they simply find a different platform? If an anti-vaccine group starts their own website, prints their own newspaper or makes their own radio show, who is responsible for that? Instead of de-platforming, Viswanath recommends actively building pro-vaccine groups and fighting the misinformation with correct information. People assume that science can speak for itself, but it can’t.

To summarize, anti-vaxx pages have gained an increased following since 2019 and are very likely to start making large sums of money because of that. This will enable them to continue spreading their message. Social media platforms have pledged to combat the spread of misinformation, however it seems like they are not doing their job very well. In addition, it might be a violation of the freedom of speech to simply delete anti-vaccine groups and pages and it could be a better strategy to fight the misinformation with scientifically proven, correct information. Overall, it is very likely that social media is causing this pandemic to last longer than it really has to. The spread of misinformation leaves a lot of people confused on what the rules are and what to do in which situation. On top of that, the online spread of the anti-vaxx movement is likely to withhold many people form getting the COVID-vaccine once it is there. I am not saying that we should all accept the vaccine and move on, I am simply suggesting that the anti-vaccine groups should be balanced with equally as provocative pro-vaccine groups and that the misinformation should be fought with real information. All in all, it is time to recognize these issues and do something about it, before our social media platforms really do cause this pandemic to continue on for much longer than necessary.

In case you were interested in this, I highly suggest this article:
Burki, T. (2020). The online anti-vaccine movement in the age of COVID-19. The Lancet Digital Health, 2(10), 504-505.